Pig in a poke

Let me out of here

Dear WD: Can you please tell me what the phrase “pig in a poke” is supposed to mean? My mother has used it my whole life and she doesn’t even know what it means. — Lisa Baler, via the Internet.

Well, your mother must have some idea what “pig in a poke” means, mustn’t she? I mean, she doesn’t use it as an all-purpose expression of amazement (“Pig in a poke! That’s a good cup of coffee!”) or, conversely, a scathing epithet (“That Muriel, she’s a real little pig in a poke.”). My guess is that she knows that “to buy a pig in a poke” means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “to buy anything without seeing it or knowing its value.” Your mother probably just doesn’t know what a “poke” is, or what a pig would be doing in one.

That’s not surprising, given how rarely one sees a “poke” these days. The “poke” in “pig in a poke” is an archaic word for “bag” or “sack.” When you went to market hundreds of years ago, you’d most likely come home with your purchases in such a “poke” — not one of those filmy and annoying things you get at supermarkets today, but a proper sack, made of burlap or canvas or the like. Since merchants at the farmers’ markets of 14th century Europe varied in their honesty, a smart shopper would be careful to check the poke he was handed to be sure that it really contained what he had paid for. Such caution was especially important in the case of “big ticket” purchases such as a live suckling pig, since unscrupulous merchants were not above substituting a stray cat of the appropriate weight for the pig in the poke handed to an unwary purchaser. The phrase “don’t buy a pig in a poke” — originally purely practical advice for 14th century shoppers — eventually came to be used as a warning applicable to any situation in which we are asked to accept an unfamiliar object or idea on faith.

By the way, can you guess what other common phrase came from the moment when the dishonest merchant’s ruse was revealed and the unlucky buyer learned the true nature of his purchase? That’s right — “letting the cat out of the bag.”

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